Appellate Review of Credibility Determinations at Suppression Hearings
In People v. Nettles, an appellate court has, for the first time, reversed a credibility determination made at a Darden hearing.
While it is axiomatic that appellate courts will give great deference to credibility determinations made at a suppression hearing, on occasion an appellate court will reverse a lower court’s ruling on the issue of credibility. In People v. Nettles, 2020 N.Y. Slip Op 04776 (2d Dep’t 2020), an appellate court has, for the first time, reversed a credibility determination made at a Darden hearing.
In the past, appellate courts have rejected a hearings court’s determination when it lacks an evidentiary basis in the record, or when the hearing court has placed undue weight on some evidence and too little weight on contrary evidence. See, e.g., People v. Wideman, 121 A.D.3d 1514 (4th Dep’t 2014). Courts have also reversed when a lower court improperly discredited police testimony, People v. Tempton, 192 A.D.2d 369 (1st Dep’t 1993), or on the other hand, improperly credited police testimony, People v. Carmona, 233 AD.2d 142 (1st Dep’t 1996).
In Nettles, the Appellate Division reviewed a credibility determination made during a Darden hearing. In People v. Darden, 34 N.Y.2d 177 (1974), the court of appeals held that when the issue of an informant’s identity is raised at a suppression hearing, and there is insufficient evidence to establish probable cause, apart from the officer’s reliance on the informant’s information, a suppression court must conduct an in camera inquiry.
Nettles is a significant reminder that the Darden procedure remains effective in protecting a defendant’s rights despite the absence of the defendant and his attorney at the hearing itself. As the decision demonstrates, defendants are able to rely on the court’s vigilance in testing the credibility of the testimony when counsel has been excluded from the proceeding.
Barry Kamins, a partner at Aidala, Bertuna & Kamins and author of New York Search and Seizure (Lexis/Nexis 2020), is a former New York Supreme Court Judge.
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